A reflection on the tensions between art and ordinary life, between romantic love and conventional marriage, Woody Allen’s latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona is both a departure from his recent efforts and a return to themes prominent in his early films. The cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe and the use of Iberian music render Barcelona — its gorgeous landscapes and mesmerizing architecture — in inviting and luscious tones. The real draw here is Penelope Cruz’s performance, which moves with remarkable ease and unpredictable alacrity between clever wit and explosive violence. Yet neither the setting nor the performances can rescue a film that raises a variety of issues only to have little or nothing to say about them.
Part of the problem with the film is its inordinate reliance on an apparently omniscient narrator (the voice of Christopher Evan Welch) whose connection to the story and its characters is never specified. Moreover, the voiceover never achieves a consistent tone — striving simultaneously for whimsy and gravity, it succeeds only in canceling out both.
The voiceover tells us at the outset about the different inclinations and personalities of two young American friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who are headed for a long vacation at the Barcelona home of Vicky’s family friends Judy and Mark Nash (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn). The more serious of the pair is Vicky, who is finishing a master’s thesis on Catalan life and who is engaged to the decidedly bland Doug (Chris Messina). By contrast, Cristina, an as yet unsuccessful filmmaker, longs for risk, suffering, and romance.
At an exhibition of paintings in Barcelona, they notice Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who soon notices them noticing him and issues an immediate invitation for them to fly with him to the small town of Oviedo. He volunteers to serve as their tour guide and, he adds frankly, lover. Vicky is appalled; Cristina, intrigued. Cristina prevails upon her friend and they head off for the weekend. As warm and charming here as he was distant and malevolent in No Country for Old Men, Bardem has an easy time seducing Cristina. Vicky seems entirely beyond his reach until she is forced to spend time alone with Juan Antonio after Cristina succumbs to a bout of food poisoning.
Throughout the rest of the film and unbeknownst to Cristina, Vicky remains divided between her desire for security, in marital boredom, and her desire for passion, which entails risks to which she is constitutionally ill suited. (Her wavering commitment to remain faithful to Doug is not assisted by her friendship with Judy, who is intent on liberating Vicky from what she is certain will come to be an oppressive marriage of the sort she has had to endure with Mark.) Both Vicky and Cristina find many of their assumptions about love and romance thrown into disarray by encounters with Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s ex-wife whose volatile temper, provoked by jealous passion for Juan, once led her to attack him with a knife.
The underlying conflict here is between the conventional American life of money, class, and family — an ugly, austere but stable life — and a sumptuous, morally lax Catalan life, in which the dramatic romantic impulses of the artist are woven into conventional life rather than opposed to it.
The focus on the tensions between art and conventional society marks something of a return to the preoccupations of Allen’s early films. Noticeably absent here is the moralistic hand wringing over God, punishment, and freedom from Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the metaphysical speculations about chance from Match Point.
Juan Antonio’s Don Juan version of nihilism — wherein life is “short, dull, and full of pain” but still offers special moments — is never really put to the test. Toward the end, Juan Antonio confesses rather matter-of-factly that he and Maria Elena were “meant for each other and not meant for each other — it’s a contradiction.”
After a suicide attempt, Maria Elena moves back in with Juan and a somewhat baffled Cristina. Initially, she has nothing but scorn for the “American tourist,” now sharing her former husband’s bed. Insisting on speaking in Spanish in order to exclude Cristina, she confidently tells Juan: “You are searching for me in every woman you meet.” She reminds him of their unrivalled passion. When he notes that things did not work out so well, she dismisses him. He states, “You tried to kill me,” to which she responds, “Oh, that.”
When Cristina finds out that Maria Elena has searched her luggage, she objects. Maria Elena is undaunted: “Of course, I searched your luggage. I did not believe you were who you said you were. How could I be sure you wouldn’t hurt me? After all, I have thoughts of killing you.”
Were it not for Cruz’s performance, the film would be a huge disappointment. One problem here is that, while Bardem is reasonably effective opposite Cruz, none of the other women is. There is really no contest between Cruz and Johanssen. It is as if Sophia Loren in her heyday were cast opposite Jessica Simpson. As the embodiment of Allen’s romanticism, Johanssen is too flat and too often vapid. She is sheer restlessness, but restlessness with no depth or even much angst. Precisely because she has no idea what she wants, only what she does not want, she has nothing in the end to affirm. Negation here is elevated to a way of life and comes off as nothing more than an expression of arrested adolescent development.
In the end — and despite the film’s exotic setting — you know you’ve seen a late-career Woody Allen movie.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.